Carolyn in 2011

I was born and raised in Guildford and was quite a God-fearing little girl – my paternal Grandmother, from Abingdon, was a very pious lady, having lost her husband and childhood sweetheart at the Battle of the Somme and her daughter, Dad’s twin sister Blanche, at the outbreak of WW2.  My parents were church-goers and I sang in the choir with Dad at St. Luke’s Chapel in Charlotteville, Guildford, helped him run the Church Youth Club and was confirmed at the then Cathedral Church of Holy Trinity.  Mum stitched kneelers for the Consecration of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Guildford (where my husband and son Robindra were to receive post-graduate degree awards in years to come…) and I would help with fund-raising.     Bricks cost half-a-crown.

When I was 18  I went off to live in a Paris attic for a couple of years, studying at the Alliance Française and meeting people from countries I hadn’t even heard of at Guildford County School for Girls.  This was the beginning of a journey that was to lead  me to many unexpected places.

I first heard of the Bahá’í Faith on August Bank Holiday Monday, 1970.

I was sharing a house with a teacher and a window-dresser, Angie and Jennie, working for Thomas Cook and running Guildford All Nations Club.  A planned ramble had been rained off and a group of us had crammed into the house to drink coffee.  Somehow the conversation moved on to religion, and we were all surprised to learn that a Jordanian post-grad student we’d assumed to be a Moslem was in fact a Bahá’í.  I had recently discovered Islam, or at least Moslems, and been impressed with the easy relationship between them at our ANC functions.

This student was Sam Delchad, who told his brother Farid that I’d shown interest and Farid sent along the little yellow booklet ‘The Bahá’í Faith’ which made total sense to me.  I contacted the Bahá’í National Office and soon afterwards Pearl and Edgar Boyett came knocking at our door. Angie, a vicar’s daughter, and I had taken pity on two young Mormons and were entertaining them to spaghetti bolognaise, so I arranged to go to the Boyetts’ home a few days later.

At that time Epsom was a lapsed County Assembly and we used to travel to Ray and Mahin Humphrey’s home every Friday evening for their firesides.  This was around the time Pam Poulter (later Lewis), Wendy Scott (later Thorne), Adam Thorne and Fiona Dunn (later McDonald) all came back from Australia; Christine and Patrick Beer returned from pioneering in Ghana and Ann and Phillip Hinton arrived from South Africa, and Epsom soon became a vibrant community and witnessed an influx of students from Epsom College of Art.

Petrol was cheap in those days and Pearl and Edgar used to drive quite long distances  supporting other communities.  We’d go to David and Barbara Lewis in Winchester, to  Sydney and Gladys Barrett in Weybridge – and even to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, in the days of Kitty Glover, Marion Klyne and Dorothy Brown.  Friends such as May Hofman, Ilona Rodgers and the Anwar family from Portsmouth were also supporting the small Island community as well as Dorothy’s daughters, Tig and Liz.

I was extremely lucky to have such a firm induction into the Faith!

As it happened, my parents were having a retirement home built in Ryde, and the Medina friends were to be my second community for the next 30 years.  In the early days I would often meet Ilona on the old paddle steamer, travelling from her actress life in London to visit her great-aunt Kitty…

I actually ‘declared’ at a weekend school in London on 6th December 1970, sitting on the stairs at Rutland Gate, where there was great excitement and my ‘declaration’ was announced by Betty Reed in the next Feast Newsletter.

I was the first Guildford-born Bahá’í, and later served on the first Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Guildford.  I have naturally retained an attachment to Guildford throughout the years and ‘collaborated’ with the community on many levels.

I remember attending a  Seals & Crofts Concert at the Roundhouse in Camden during these heady early days, National Teaching Conference in Birmingham when May, Fiona and I stayed in Wendy Scott’s basement flat, a weekend at the Cardells’ farm at St. Neots, sleeping in the barn when the tent I was borrowing collapsed…  Singing songs about Baha’u’lláh’s Army and We are Drops with Rocky Grove, Jim Elliott and so many others!

In the meantime the rest of the Delshad family arrived in Guildford from Addis Ababa, with Muna and Jim (‘Abdol-Majid) joining their brother Samir at Surrey University, overlapping with Frank and Guitty Bonner, Marilyn Gough, Azar Parvizi, Royston Paynter, Vafa Rastan, Mark Benatar, Brian Bailey, Shahla Shirinzadeh and Parvaneh and Afsaneh Eghterafi.   Most of them I later served with on Guildford or Waverley Spiritual Assemblies.  Glory Days!!!

In Summer 1971 I went to the amazing Youth Conference in Fiesch, where we walked along railway tracks into the village, which was totally overwhelmed by our numbers, eating fabulous hearty food, going up in a mountain car in flip-flops with Brant Hardy and Roland Rutland;  Pam Poulter, Fiona Dunn, the Momens, Barney and Erica, Mary Hardy and all of the buzzing 70s youth.  My first visit to Switzerland.  And we listened to Amatu’l-Bahá every day…

Afterwards I stayed with a Swiss friend from Guildford All Nations Club, sharing my excitement with her family, before getting the train back to Calais.  I truly believed in those days that all my friends, and their friends, would join the Faith!

During Fiesch I met an American pioneer, Bill Davies, who was getting a group together to drive down to Central Africa.  I didn’t join his group, which suffered a very serious accident along the way, but he put me in touch with the National Secretary of Tchad,  Olive McDonald, who was trying to replace herself as a bi-lingual secretary with Continental Oil as she needed to work full-time for the Faith as the 9 Year Plan drew to a close.   I duly presented myself at Conoco’s London office, who were slightly surprised that someone should be volunteering to go to such a place, and just a few weeks and many vaccinations later I stepped off the plane in  Fort Lamy, after a stop-over with friends from my ‘au pair’ days in Paris,  into a furnace,  gradually becoming aware that the welcoming party of smiling, singing Africans, two skinny Iranians and a small white-haired lady were calling my name!!

My time in Tchad was probably more of a culture shock for the community than for me – I was used to being with people from other climes, but on my home ground,  and  I had to leave after a year during which I was hospitalised with amoebic dysentery and endured rabies injections after an encounter with a neighbourhood dog.

I had a little white moped to get around on the unmade roads and lived in a house with mud walls – but did have running water and a toilet….  I loved the Tchadian people, but it was not an ideal pioneering post for a young single woman and mine was usually the only European face in the crowd when French or African politicians swept through with their cavalcades.

During my time there I met some distinguished people, including Dr Samandari, Dr. Muhajir, and beloved Aziz Yazdi with whom I kept in touch over the years. (And the skinny Iranians, Nosrat and Bijan, I’m back in touch with thanks to Facebook.)  They were among the many courageous Iranian youth sent overseas during the Nine Year Plan and really suffered from the climate and sickness.

I next met  Dr. Samandari at the Bahá’í Bhavan in New Delhi in 1986, whilst we registered for the Inauguration Conference of the Mashriq’ul-Adkar.  Olive McDonald I was not to be reunited with until the closing moments of the Bahá’í World Congress in 1992.

After Tchad I stayed briefly with my parents on the Isle of Wight before returning to Guildford for the formation of the first local Spiritual Assembly.  I eventually went to work at the Bahá’í National Office with Ann Moqbel, Fiona McDonald and Eva Eriksen – interviewed by Charles Macdonald before he left to serve in India, where we later visited him in 1979, but working for our much-loved Philip Hainsworth.   It was he who grounded me in the Bahá’í Administration, which he served so unswervingly.

I remember meeting Hand of the Cause Bill Sears at Rutland Gate when he launched his “Each one Teach one” Campaign.   I also chaired a very young Richard Hainsworth in his first public talk there.  But usually I rushed back to Guildford after work as there was always something to be doing in those days, so was never really part of the London community – although I would sometimes go to Earl and Audrey Cameron’s lovely firesides in Ealing…

During the ‘70s I attended several Summer Schools in France, with the Cameron family and Najla Baghdadi,  meeting Hands of the Cause Mr Faizi and Dr Ugo Giachery,  and spartan Winter Schools in Hardy-country Henley-on-Thames…   I also met Bernard Leach at his home in St Ives when on a teaching trip with Joan Giddings, renting a cottage nearby, and also visiting Mrs Mokhtari and some of her children in Plymouth.

During this time I served on a 70s-style ATC for Surrey and Sussex with Abbas Mehrnoosh, Noreen Atkinson and Christine Beer, and on the Overseas Goals Committee with Philip Hainsworth, Steven Jenkerson, Ronald (Tahir) Taherzadeh, Tony McCarthy, Derek Cockshut and Derwent and Nora Maude.

In 1977  I was temping for Alfred Marks in London, mourning the departure of the Delshad family who had phoned in on their way to live in Australia, when a call came from Rutland Gate saying that David Hofman wanted to know what I was doing!  Each of the two secretaries then at the International Teaching Centre had been called home and my name had come to his attention through both Philip Hainsworth and Aziz Yazdi.  Once again I dropped everything, and headed off to the Holy Land, despite the insistence of the envious Jewish accountants that I wouldn’t be able to work there, and my parents’ slight concern because of the geographical location.

Having sat on my hands during pioneering calls after the Tchad experience, including at the Paris Conference in 1976, it was time to move again, and this time I was able to invite my parents to come and enjoy the hospitality of the Bahá’í World Centre for two weeks before I came home,  which left a lasting impression on their lives and which I referred to at Dad’s funeral.  We visited Nazareth, Nahariya and the Galilee, but it was at the old Pilgrim House in Haifa that Dad was lovingly served the Persian tea which he always credited with curing him of the crippling migraines he used to suffer…

I spent two consecutive 13 week periods  at the World Centre, this being the length of a temporary visa, and before the time of ‘Year of Service’, working first for the International Teaching Centre with Hooper Dunbar, Mr. Yazdi and Florence Mayberry – and whichever Hands of the Cause were present in the Holy Land, including Amatu’l-Bahá, who was very particular about how one answered the phone, and if too much had been spent on the coffee-break cookies…

After returning from England (where I had re-encountered Bibhas, my future husband, at our mutual friends the Asad’ullahs’ wedding) I worked in the Statistics Office in the basement of the former Seat of the House of Justice, with Margaret Bachrich with whom I shared a birthday.  Eunice Braun worked in the office next door, and sometimes House members would pop down to see how we all were.  Tony Conroy and I would have after-hours chats whilst I typed letters home and he made sure everything was spick and span – before the days of the army of janitors… There were regular talks for staff members in the community hall, and I often went to the Pilgrim House to listen when Mr Furútan or one of the House members would be talking to the Pilgrims.  Staff would also be invited to the homes of House members on a rota!   During my parents’ visit Dr David and Margaret Ruhe invited us, as did dear George and Elsie Bowers and several of the generous American friends.

This was all such a bounty!  However, in those days there were not many young, single people at the World Centre so I opted to return to the real world and not to accept a longer appointment – and Bibhas was in the wings…

I didn’t return to Haifa until December 1996, when Bibhas arranged a 3-day visit  for my 50th Birthday, spending a few days in Nahariya beforehand.  We finally went on Pilgrimage together in 2005, with the Habibi and Sier families, Viv and Rita Bartlett and son Kalim, and Dermod and Roshan Knox, among others, and in 2006 we took our younger son Robindra for three days, from Cyprus, for his 25th Birthday – being re-united for the first time in nearly 30 years with Muna Delshad-Waters who had just arrived with her Australian husband Allan who served in the Office of Huquq’u’lláh.

After my second stint in Haifa I moved into Farnham as a home front pioneer to Waverley District, forming the first local Spiritual Assembly, moving to Godalming after  Bibhas and I married at the Farnham Maltings on 29th April 1978 under the watchful eyes of Eruch and Meherangiz Munsiff and witnessed by my 60s friend Susan O’Donovan (later Flegg),  and settling in Farncombe after our first son Chandra was born at Ridván 1979.

I took Chandra to the first Thomas Breakwell Sunday School, at Waterloo, London, and both Chandra and Robindra attended the later ones in Sussex.  We would also attend lovely Family Days and One Day Schools in Sussex arranged by Cecilia Smith and Sue Nichols, or at Judy Oakeshott’s family farmhouse, joined by people such as Professor Bushrui and Marion Hofman.  Bibhas at this time was still a Hindu, ‘declaring’ only in the closing moments of Holy year in 1993.  His is a quite different and very interesting journey!

We were regulars at the Felixstowe Spring School, organised by Hugh and Deborah McKinley, which grew out of the North Sea Border Conferences, and many Welsh and English Summer Schools whilst our sons grew up. We’ve also been to Malta on many occasions for winter and spring Schools and visits… and to Northern Ireland and Waterford (in the Republic).  I attended a wonderful School in Inverness Town Hall around 1974, travelling overnight by train with the Hardys and others and waking up to spectacular views of heather and streams.  I don’t remember much of the programme, but the Hellabys were there, and we stayed in B&Bs all over the town, and visited some Highland Games before travelling home.

I went to Scotland again with Pearl Boyett soon after getting married in 1978, this time getting the bus from Victoria Coach Station laden with magazines and chocolates from Bibhas, attending Summer School  in a Youth Hostel and later staying with Sarah Lindsey at her home  “Ringstone” in Dumfries during a local Teaching campaign.

I’ve attended many Teaching Conferences, National Conventions and other events around the country in venues such as Scarborough, Liverpool, Llandudno, Warwick,  the first Bahá’í Council for England Conference in Nottingham, and an inspiring Assistants’ Meeting in Southport around 2001? after the first meeting of Auxiliary Board members at the International Teaching Centre.   I served as Adam Thorne’s Assistant for a number of years in the 80s, meeting regularly in Shamsi Navidi’s apartment in Sloane Square along with Paul Booth and Pari Firoozmand’s Assistants, and later as Assistant to Mike Gammage, usually meeting at the Brighton Bahá’í Centre.

In 1986 we attended the magnificent Inauguration of the New Delhi House of Worship, the construction of which we had witnessed during several earlier visits.  We stayed on in Delhi afterwards at the Ashok Yatri Nivas hotel, with the late Thierry March and Ken and Sarah Bishop.

In 1984 we’d also visited the New Era School in Panchgani as guests of Irene and Falariva Tafaaki, which was quite an adventure with two small boys in tow as the taxi climbed higher and higher!   This was also the year when I first experienced the death of a friend, Wendy Thorne, who also had two small boys, and I found this very difficult to comprehend…

In 1992  I attended the Bahá’í World Congress in New York, another unforgettable experience.  One of my school-friends spirited me away from the Bahá’í group at JFK, installing me in her apartment at South St. Seaport before leaving for her country abode.   That first night there was a huge fire further up the street in Lower Manhatten!   I travelled on the subway each day, which was a little scary, giving pamphlets to all the vendors along the route…  After the Conference Jane collected me again to spend the weekend at ‘Pioneer Farm’ in Warwick with her Thanksgiving guests who were quite impressed by the write-ups in the New York papers, having not  understood what  Jane’s friend from England had come to do and why I hadn’t joined the party earlier!  Then she dropped me and her 12 year old son, and his dog, back in New York and flew off to Los Angeles.  He seemed unfazed by this, and a contract taxi took him to school the next day, leaving me free to visit the United Nations Building and  the office of the Bahá’í International Community at the U.N. – and to take the famous ferry to Staten Island.

As well as the magnificent Paris Conference in 1976 I was able to attend, with Bibhas, the 50th Anniversary Conferences of the Spanish and French communities in Madrid and Paris respectively, in 1997 and 1998.  The Madrid Conference was, I believe, the last major event attended by Ruhiyyih Khanúm, accompanied by her beloved Violette Nakhjavani.

We also spent quality time there with Philip and Lois Hainsworth, as we had done at the Delhi Conference.  (And with Sarah & Ken Bishop, now pioneers from the Isle of Wight to Gibraltar, and Carmen Galindo Garcia who had been an ‘au pair’ in Farnham).  Philip was a major influence in my Bahá’í life and that of my husband Bibhas.

In 2009 we attended the historic Regional Conferences in London, Frankfurt and Istanbul.  In Frankfurt as part of the French ‘Grand Ouest’ contingent, and in Istanbul as part of the Cyprus contingent.  In the evening before the Frankfurt Conference we attended a beautiful Service at the European House of Worship at Langenhain, which we had long wished to visit. This was also to be the last time to exchange a few words with Mr Ian Semple, retired member of the Universal House of Justice.

After the Istanbul Conference we went on a coach to visit the Bahá’í Holy Places in Edirne with some of the friends from Cyprus, meeting other Pilgrims when we arrived.  It snowed whilst we were there and we were able to reflect on the sufferings of the Holy Family on their long journey into exile…

I’ve attended several big Summer Schools in both North and South Cyprus hotels with international speakers, but the sweetest was a Winter School in Lapta/Lapithos in 2004 when Mr and Mrs Nakhjavani spoke about the Administrative Order and Amatu’l-Bahá respectively.  Their punctuality, courtesy and charm were an example to us all, and Cyprus is blessed by their many visits to the Island.

We bought a home in Northern Cyprus around 2001, and then in Brittany around 2008, having visited France regularly over the years.  We support or host Bahá’í activities whenever we can in France, where there is an active but sparsely distributed community,  and are fully involved in planning and executing activities in Cyprus, where Bibhas now spends half the year…   The French ‘pied-a-terre’ is minute and cosy, but in Cyprus there is a lot of land and we’ve been able to host many joyful activities over the years.  We count ourselves very fortunate to have a base and lovely Bahá’í communities in both countries, whilst continuing to ‘network’ in Surrey.

Waverley Assembly was lost during the Boundary Changes and for a while the local Thomas Breakwell School became a place to recharge our batteries, until the Clusters were put in place and these Schools also disbanded.  Surrey has been designated an ‘A’ Cluster but we struggle!

We were a strong Assembly built on solid foundations and over the years it was a privilege  to variously serve with Frank and Guitty Bonner, Mark and Jessie Benatar,  the Badiees,  Hugh and Dona Adamson,  Kitt and Vafa Ram alongside ‘home-grown’ believers like Joyce and Philip Spath – and my pre-Bahá’í friends Rosalind Whittam, Susan Flegg (née O’Donovan) and Giséle Robélin-Tran.   And Bibhas of course!

Sadly despite our best efforts we have yet to raise a Spiritual Assembly of Godalming…

For very many years we have held a  meeting at the old town hall ’Pepperpot’ in the centre of Godalming on the fourth Tuesday of each month, planning our trips around these meetings – if there are five Tuesdays in a month we can both have a whole month away…   Many people have come up the stairs over the years and this is a focal point for our continuing presence on ‘wider community’ listings and websites.

In the meantime, whilst engaging with the ‘Core activities’ locally as far as possible, I am very happy to be able to participate in activities in France and Cyprus as well and to know that we are all working towards a common goal.

Throughout my years as a Bahá’í I have continued to engage with the wider community and now seem to be on data bases to be invited to whatever is going on in today’s ‘diversity’ culture.   I was for many years a member of Guildford International Council, then Guildford & Godalming United Nations Association and now Guildford & Godalming Inter-Faith Forum and Surrey Minority Ethnic Forum.  I have also been a regular contributor to local papers throughout the years.

This year there was a beautiful photo of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ after the meeting in Byfleet on 9th September commemorating His visit there, arranged by the ATC.  The joyous preparations for this event really brought the Cluster together.

I  attended the meeting at Epsom’s Bourne Hall on 10th September – the Anniversary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk at the City Temple,  a later meeting at Byfleet Village Hall arranged by  the Spiritual Assembly of Woking to mark His second visit of 28th September, and another one in Earley on the Day of the Covenant dedicated to His visit to the U.K.   We visited some of the places where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke in London during the Heritage Weekend, bumping into friends around the City…  This has been a very precious year for the U.K. community, with each of the Summer Schools also focussing on His visits and talks.

My parents, Tom and Queenie Branson,  were always very supportive of the Faith, apart from the anxiety I caused them with my African adventure.  After my mother died in 2010, I came across a rare copy of Canon George Townshend’s book The Altar on the Hearth – to All Homes that seek Felicity as its Source  in Dad’s bureau.

I’ll never know how he came by it and whether he had ever made the connection, but it gave me goose-pimples reading the increasingly familiar lines before checking the Author, and realising that Dad was drawn to these Teachings before I was!

———————

Carolyn Neogi

Surrey, December 2011

Carolyn Branson (later Neogi) in 1974

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